Expanded Prayers for the UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s Clergy Session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference. Read the specifics of Judicial Decision 1321!

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women, a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference actions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case by setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of the Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC and is the voice of General Conference.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue. Our most urgent prayer in the timeline is to pray fervently for the Judicial Council.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

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Prayers for The UMC Judicial Council

The United Methodist Church’s version of the Supreme Court, otherwise known as the Judicial Council, will be ruling in October about Karen Oliveto’s consecration as a UM bishop, and they’ll be adjudicating whether an annual conference’s clergy session and Board of Ordained Ministry can properly have before them persons who have self-avowed behaviors that are in violation of the United Methodist Book of Discipline. It is basically a question of whether an annual conference’s prerogatives outweigh General Conference’s actions.

The first major Judicial Decision which established that General Conference is preeminent in legislation and supersedes annual conferences’ administrative function, was made back in 1972. In reference to the establishment of the General Council on Ministries, the Judicial Council  stated in Decision 364, “The General Conference may not delegate legislative functions and responsibilities which are assigned to it by the Constitution.” This specifically helps us pray for the Judicial Council because at issue is who outranks whom in our checks and balances system. The bottom line is exactly what the Book of Discipline says in Par. 509.1,2: Only the General Conference has the authority to speak for the church.

Judicial Decision 1321 that was rendered at GC2016 also covers this in great detail and cites previous decisions of church law (All Judicial Council Decisions can be researched online at http://www.umc.org/who-we-are/judicial-council). Decision 1321 reinforces that the General Conference certainly has full legislative authority over all things “distinctively connectional” (Par. 16), including matters of defining minimum clergy credentialing requirements (Cf. Judicial Decision 536). There are plenty of Judicial Decisions that make the recent actions of certain annual conferences null and void, even the election of Karen Oliveto. My interpretation of the aforementioned decisions is that it is impossible in our connectional polity for an annual, central, or jurisdictional conference to contravene the General Conference.

It really doesn’t matter if an annual conference says persons are in “good standing” if they have already self-avowed that they are in opposition to The Book of Discipline. The declaration of the General Conference is the last word, and the “right to trial” guaranteed to each UM clergyperson is moot when someone precludes the need of a trial by their own volition. Judicial Decision 980 is very specific if an annual conference’s Committee on Investigation refuses to certify a bill of charges and ignores stated facts that ipso facto would convict a person. The Decision reaches two very pertinent conclusions: “Should members of the Committee on Investigation be unwilling to uphold the Discipline for reasons of conscience, such members must step aside…” and  “persons who state that they cannot in good conscience uphold the Discipline are ineligible to serve on a trial jury.”

As a historical aside, after the 1956 GC had approved full clergy rights for women a specific case arose about some who refused to enforce the GC’s action. This Decision is a great help in understanding our denominational jurisprudence and the rights of whole entities in the church to ignore General Conference decisions. The Judicial Council rendered Decision 155 in 1958 which stated clearly that everyone had to abide by the same Book of Discipline. This was a wonderful decision in many ways, and in this case in setting a legal precedence (Par. 2611 BOD) of Book of Discipline over all other documents and entities. It alone speaks for the UMC.

Similarly, Judicial Decision 886 offers clear guidance in our current milieu. In its opening “Digest of Case,” the decision says, “The Discipline is the law of the Church which regulates every phase of the life and work of the Church. As such, annual conferences may not legally negate, ignore, or violate provisions of the Discipline with which they disagree, even when the disagreements are based upon conscientious objections to those provisions.” It seems obvious that connectionalism is based upon mutual covenant keeping, or the whole house falls.

The United Methodist position on the practice of homosexuality extends both grace and definite boundaries. It is a complex issue. Not only is the authority of Scripture involved, but also our ecclesiology. My sincere hope is that our denomination can work through this. My plea is for us to honor the Study Commission and pray for them as they do their work on “A Way Forward” on this issue.

In the meantime, all of us need to keep covenant, whether pro or con in changing the language of the Discipline about the practice of homosexuality. We pray and hold fast in the interim. I remind all UM clergy that Judicial Decision 986 says that any pastor that deliberately encourages withholding apportionments is liable for a charge of disobedience. BOD Pars. 340.2(c)(2)e, 639.4 and 247.14, last sentence, are very instructive. Let’s remain calm and let the judicial process work.

This is about the rule of canon law and covenant keeping in a connectional church. These are tenuous times for us. We can either obey the General Conference or fracture into something we’re not. I wouldn’t want to be anything else than a United Methodist. Every person who has been ordained promised to keep our rules and stated that he or she agreed with them. I made that promise, and I’m still keeping it by the grace of God.

Judicial Council Book Pic

The Un-tied Methodist Church

As most of you know, I wasn’t elected Bishop last week, and to let everyone know – I’m fine. I might not carry a shepherd’s crook like a Bishop does, but will always seek to carry a shepherd’s heart. I am so happy to remain as pastor of St. John’s, Aiken. What a wonderful church! Our future is bright as a congregation, and I am happy to still be on the journey with you.

The future is not so bright for our denomination. I love the United Methodist Church, too much to “go quietly into the night.” I’m talking about events in the Western Jurisdiction with its election of a person who self-proclaims that she is living in a relationship that’s not in agreement with our beliefs. I find this both schismatic and sad. Any hope of a special called session of General Conference to hear the findings of a Council of Bishops’ Study Commission about the complexities of balancing the practice of homosexuality with Scripture have been circumvented, if not completely derailed. While I was in Portland for this year’s General Conference, a person who is married to her partner, said to me, “We don’t have the votes to overturn the Book of Discipline, but we’re going to burn the house down as we leave.” Wow!

Though it is just as chargeable an offense to withhold apportionments as it is to be a self-avowed practicing homosexual, we’re at a tipping point when the actions of the Western Jurisdiction and the promoters of this way of thinking don’t care anymore. There are people whose ways of interpreting the Bible can justify anything, both left and right. I would rather be on the side of 95% of Christendom on this issue than not. We are a house divided. Some contend that they are doing God’s will, that they are keeping a higher covenant than ones made at their ordination. In my understanding, a covenant is a covenant, none higher or lower than another. We are at a place I hoped that I would never see, but I knew a day of reckoning would come.

We are paying for our past sins. When the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, The Methodist Episcopal Church (North), and the Methodist Protestant Church reunited in 1939 we built in a regionalism born of racism. We created the Central Jurisdiction to segregate African-Americans, and we created 5 other jurisdictions with semi-autonomous powers in matters like the election of bishops. The election of bishops had heretofore been under the purview of the General Conference. In 1939 we created a regionalistic protection against adverse influence by other jurisdictions. This was the last gasp of the “Lost Cause” of the South. We didn’t want those “_______ Yankees” telling us who to get along with or elect.

Now it’s appropriately coming back to haunt us. There are constitutional protections that allow each jurisdiction to elect whom it will, and Boards of Ordained Ministry, that are solely nominated by their respective bishops, as to whom they declare fit for ministry, subject to approval from the Clergy Session. The Western Jurisdiction has proven how far this built-in permissiveness can be manipulated. The “United” in Methodism has now become “untied.” It’s all in where one places the “i.”

I want us to remain a “we,” and constitutionally we are if we believe that the power of the General Conference supersedes all other lesser bodies, and has sole authority over all matters that are distinctively connectional (Par. 16). Therefore, I urge the Council of Bishops to act quickly and ask for a special session of General Conference to try and prevent schism. More than that, we must affirm Biblical obedience before it’s too late to escape the eternal consequences of our disobedience.

The Judicial Council must not wait until its fall docket to adjudicate the request for a declaratory decision by the South Central Jurisdiction on the election of self-avowed and practicing lesbian, Karen Oliveto, as a bishop in the Western Jurisdiction. We either have a covenant, a Book of Discipline, or we don’t. There are those who sincerely feel that this action by the Western Jurisdiction and similar actions by others are God’s will and celebrate. They lump together Martin Luther’s disobedience to the Roman Catholic Church, John Wesley’s to the Anglican Church, and our own reversals of thoughts about women clergy and civil rights for people of color, but forget the non-violent methods of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. By breaking covenant they have done harm to the whole United Methodist Connection. Violence and “burning the house down” is the way of the world, not Christ. Isn’t this really about a higher matter than winners and losers? Isn’t it really about our understanding of Scripture. Everyone gets to have an opinion, but not God, and I’m tired of it. I’ve read all the positions, heard it all, and I’m sick of the polarization and duplicitous actions that have moved us from being a “purple” denomination, and made us a polarized “red” and “blue” one.

I am not worried about St. John’s UMC. I am worried about The United Methodist Church as a whole. A true story keeps banging in my brain. When South Carolina still flew the Confederate flag over our Statehouse, there were many of us who were ashamed. My wife and I were two of those people. Somehow everyone didn’t get the message about our personal feelings on the subject, got confused, or whatever, and an individual gave us a framed print of the Statehouse dome with the US flag, the SC flag, and the Confederate flag still flying. Cindy took it back to the gift shop and said she wanted to return it. The lady there said they didn’t give refunds. Cindy replied, “I’m not asking for a refund. I just want to get rid of it.” The lady responded, “But you’re a Southerner. This is your heritage.” Cindy prophetically replied, “This is NOT my heritage. This is my history. History is something we’re supposed to learn from. Heritage is something you want to pass on to your children.”

For too long the history of 1939 and its regionalistic racism and barriers have held us in bondage to the past, and we haven’t learned from it. Our Wesleyan heritage of grace and holiness hasn’t been passed on well enough. Some would say that this is the fault of our seminaries and publishing house. I grew up in the wake of the “God is Dead” existentialist neo-orthodox anything goes era. Those days are back again, under a new guise, and it’s killing us.

We must now choose both orthodoxy and orthopraxy, not separating right belief from right action. We must value all humans, but not yield to the temptation to say that everything is good. God said everything was good before Adam and Eve’s Fall, not afterward. God has been trying to undo the consequences of sin ever since, supremely through Jesus.

Therefore, our divisive structures must be destroyed. We must be united in our covenant, or let those who want to disobey leave in peace. Having a single US conference doesn’t help at all. It trounces Wesley’s tenet that the world is our parish. In our global UMC, it would also tell the world that we believe western liberalism and its values are the 21st century’s version of colonialism. We must have a common Book of Discipline and form a “more perfect union” by letting go of a sinful history and forging a new way based on a common heritage. We must bow before Jesus and pledge allegiance to Him, humble ourselves, and repent. Let us learn from history and pass our Godly heritage on to our children, before it’s too late!

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Curing Optic Rectosis

Back in 1996 I was elected to my first of 5 General Conferences of the United Methodist Church. Since then I’ve been on some very effective teams and some that weren’t. I was on the former General Council on Ministries for 4 years, The Connectional Table for 8 years, The Worldwide UMC Study Committee for 4 years, and now on the General Commission on Religion and Race for a four-year term. I’ve been on plenty of other teams in the global UMC including mission teams, pastoral teams, and am now in my eighth year of a Cabinet team. I also like to think of the Columbia District as a team. That’s been our motto: “Together We Can Do More!” and it has happened. I clearly remember the use of “team” back in 1996 as our Episcopal nominee, Ted Walter, gave his speech before the gathered delegates of the Southeastern Jurisdiction as we met in Denver, CO at General Conference.

He used a story to emphasize that he wanted to be a part of an Annual Conference’s team. The story went something like this: “A mule named ‘Jim’ was being driven by his owner. When everyone got on the wagon, the driver yelled ‘Giddyup, Jim. Giddyup, Sue. Giddyup, Sam. Giddyup, John. Giddyup, Joe.’ As the wagon started to move, one of the passengers said: ‘When Jim is the only one there, why did you call all those other names?’ The owner replied: ‘If Jim knew he was the only one pulling this wagon, he’d never budge an inch.’ It takes teamwork.”

Sometimes when I get optic rectosis, which is a nice way of saying I’ve been looking at life from a position a lot lower than a pat on the back, it helps to know the truth of 2 passages of Scripture that have a lot in common: I Corinthians 10:13 and I Peter 5:9-11. They have a lot in common, especially that God delivers and that we’re never alone when we think we’re the only one in the world going through this mess.

Listen to the commonalities between the passages. First, I Corinthians 10:13: “No temptation has seized you except what is common to humankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can stand up against it.” I Peter 5:9-11 says, “Resist him (the devil), standing firm in the faith, because you know that your brothers and sisters throughout the world are undergoing the same kind of sufferings. And the God of all grace, who called you to his eternal glory in Christ, after you have suffered for a little while, will himself restore you and make you strong, firm and steadfast. To him be the power forever and ever. Amen.”

What I hear is that I’m not the only one who has ever been through this crud. There are plenty of other sojourners who walk a similar path, and in both passages we have a God who is faithful and strong and on our side! Now that’s a team!

“Team” is a simple word to describe the Trinitarian theology that I appreciate so much, although I’m a little taken aback at the words I’ve heard lately at the conclusion of prayers: “In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.” Didn’t Jesus say to pray in his name? What’s with this? Maybe I’m late to the game, but it’s no big deal, really. After all when you see one person of the Trinity, you see all three at work in that marvelous dance, distinct but indivisible, when Holy Perichoresis takes place.

“Perichoresis” is a word composed of two roots: peri which means around, and choresis from whence we get our word, to dance. In other words, God is always dancing around as a team, as the Trinity – always on the move, on the go, and at the ready – together! Better news for us is that when we feel alone facing life’s problems we should remember that we bear the Imago dei, the Image of God. Therefore, if God exists and works in the community that we call the Trinity how much more so should we lean upon one another when times are tough? We are vital members of a divine-human team that always wins!

Why do you think that “ER” was so popular on TV from 1994-2009, or “Bones” now? One reason is that emergencies or crisis management, require not solo players but team play, and we are enthralled and galvanized by the way in which a motivated team can take on a challenge. It’s not white knights, lone wolves or highflying eagles that solve crises. It’s team play. Can I dare say it’s the Trinity and the church!

So chunk your optic rectosis and hold your head up! You’ve got a lot of big-time H/help all around you! “Together We Can Do More!”

Appointment-making and Itinerancy!

As I write this our appointment-making cabinet is on lunch break, and I thought it might be a good time to write a few reflections. This effort tends to affect your desire to eat anyway. For me, it either makes me want to endlessly get up and graze at our snack table, or makes my appetite utterly disappear. I’m not too hungry today. Those whose lives depend upon what we do here, don’t let my lack of appetite freak you out. Things are going extremely well as we ponder the best match of pastoral gifts and graces and church needs. I appreciate so much Bishop Jonathan Holston, South Carolina’s new bishop. He is a keen observer of people and has already made significant relationships across our annual conference that informs this process. He is transparent, fair, and impresses upon the cabinet that the missional aspect of our appointments should always be foremost in our shared thinking.

We follow Wesley’s rules of “Do no harm. Do Good. Stay in love with God.” We are very careful to avoid harming churches and clergy (including their families). We sincerely want to do good for all involved. We especially want to honor and stay in love with God for whom this kingdom-building enterprise exists. This is hard work, exhausting work. We use every bit of information that we can muster identifying church needs and clergy gifts and family contexts. We pore over statistical data that churches supply along with their self-identified opportunities and points of concern. We try to look for laser-like clarity as we study the consultation information and profiles of clergy. We kill a lot of trees with putting together all this information about churches and pastors, plus we have all sorts of electronic information that we project on the screen in the room. It’s an arduous process and we need your prayers. The clergy and families along with the churches need plenty of prayer, too.

We are a sent-system of clergy deployment. Ministers are called by God when they enter United Methodist ministry and are sent from then on. Churches don’t call pastors, and preachers don’t self-select their places of service. We try to make for good matches so that Jesus is glorified and God’s grace is more effectively shared. I have even pondered if we might spread the Word better if we moved all of our church members and left the clergy where they are. That would be missional!

I can remember the times in my ministry when I have really wondered about the wisdom or apparent lack thereof behind appointment-making. Everyone in United Methodist itinerant ministry and all the churches who have been receiving pastors over the years have been burned more than a few times. We have probably all wondered, “Did the District Superintendent listen to us?” After seven years as a DS I know that the answer is “Yes!” Sometimes that listening doesn’t provide an answer that’s either expected or desired. My experience on the Cabinet is that we try our very best to be faithful to this ministry for the good of all and for the glory of God.

A lot of you, clergy and SPRC Chairs, are going to get expected and unexpected phone calls at the end of the week. Please know that you are appreciated, prayed for, and loved. Let’s all continue to bathe this process in prayer. Every day we have appointments to keep. As United Methodists this takes on special meaning during this time of year. What does God want you to do today? As we make appointments, my prayer is that we all keep our God-appointments today. May our walk with God empower all of lives to be fruitful wherever we’re sent today!

Addendum: I just grazed at the snack table and was sifting through the mini-candy bars and felt something unusual. It was a Baby Ruth all sealed up with nothing but air inside. All kinds of thoughts and sermon uses have popped into my head, plus some thoughts about some of our churches and clergy and appointment-making. Before you take offense, no, of course, I’m not talking about you! Nevertheless, what sermon titles or appointment thoughts pop into your mind? “All Dressed up, but nothing inside,” “Nice Wrapper…,” “All Show and No Dough,” “Looks Good on the outside, Empty on the inside,” …. lots of possibilities come to mind. Tell me your thoughts as it pertains to the church! Congress is off-limits!

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“Fanfare for the Common Man”

Going to seminary in Boston was wonderful. Living on the North Shore was exhilarating with its historic towns of Salem, Rockport, Gloucester, Ipswich, Marblehead and Swampscott. The sea air wisped throughout the campus. The ocean froze in the winter with floes left behind as the tide went up and down. The seafood was superb!

Boston proper was utopia. Cambridge and Harvard Square were Mecca’s for free thought and expression. The place exuded intelligence in an unobtrusive air. Boston’s sites were so historic and more than quaint: Old North Church, Bunker Hill, the U.S.S. Constitution; Fenway Park; Copley Square; Paul Revere’s home; Park Street Church, Filene’s Bargain Basement, “Cheers,” and Quincy Market located next to Faneuil Hall: the cradle of liberty and the Boston Tea Party.

Cindy and I will never forget staying in the home of members of the Boston Pops. Part of what makes the Fourth of July so special to us is listening to the Pops play Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man” and Tchaikovsky’s “1812 Overture.” “Pops Goes the Fourth” on PBS isn’t to be missed!

However, with all of New England’s patriotic fervor and sites I am reminded that the bulk of the Revolution’s cost was borne by Southerners. New England gave the American Revolution its philosophical underpinnings and treatises while Southerners fought most of its battles with South Carolina having had more Revolutionary battles than any other state. Think about the movie “The Patriot” to catch glimpses of King’s Mountain, Cowpens, Charleston, Camden, and Buford’s Massacre. Thank God for backwoodsmen and Over-the-Mountain Boys in addition to the Swamp Foxes of the Lowcountry.

July Fourth is a holiday that should rouse the weakest spirit. It is the triumph of the farmers and shopkeepers, the little people, over the high and mighty ranks of Redcoats. It is indeed “Fanfare for the Common Man” including women the likes of Betsy Ross and Molly Pitcher, African-Americans like Crispus Attucks the first martyr of the Revolution, and American Indian tribes doing their part, too. What makes America so special is our common humanity. We don’t relish elitism. We are all here because we escaped somewhere else, except for the Native Americans, and African-Americans brought here against their will. If we will but remember our shared pain, travails, and triumphs, America will yet be a beacon of hope to humanity.

All this makes me think of the little church that I’ve been passing on a regular basis. It’s located on I-77 near Winnsboro, SC. The church’s sign is a bit out of the ordinary. The name of the church is “New Independent Methodist Church.” The logo, however, is the Southern Baptist symbol which is pretty appropriate, actually. Southern Baptist churches have by-laws each unto themselves in their congregational polity. This is much too independent for my liking. As I think about Independence Day 2012 and ponder our life together as United Methodists, there’s no such thing as an independent Methodist church. We’re all connected and I’m glad! We’re a dependent denomination. We depend on God and each other!

That’s a good reminder for America, too. Indeed, as I think about who we are as Americans and United Methodists, I’m drawn to the fact that our history is a multi-colored and multi-cultured tapestry. We’re meant to be a melting pot of diversity not a salad bowl with lettuce, then cucumbers, tomatoes, etc. topped by whatever dressing in a top-down hierarchy. Our political system shouldn’t be about who’s in office or has the majority. We’re in this thing together and better not forget it!

American democracy and United Methodist connectionalism work best when they’re horizontal not vertical. What we hold in common trumps special interests any day. As for me this Fourth of July, I’m going to celebrate it as American Dependence Day. We need each other. Together we can do more! Happy Fourth! Think dependence more than indepedence!

Guaranteed Appointments, Itinerancy, and Being Sent for Jesus

It’s Annual Conference time for most of us. Ministers are moving and churches are receiving new clergypersons. It’s a time fraught with anxiety. Clergy ask, “Will my children like the new place? Will my spouse find a good job? Will my call be fulfilled here or squelched?” Churches wonder such things, too. Will they like their new pastor, how many changes will there be in the order of service, and will the sermons and pastoral care be good? It’s a scary time in an itinerant system. However, John Wesley said, “Itinerancy was the apostolic plan for evangelization.” He thought literal movement of preachers helped Methodism stay a vital spiritual movement. Here’s the current rub: We expect elders to itinerate and whole families to pick up and move, but now we’re not going to promise a place to serve. At first glance this doesn’t seem fair, but we are all concerned about denominational decline and wonder if higher accountability will increase clergy and church fruitfulness. Tongue-in-cheek, it has struck me that we might have a better chance at revival if we left the preachers where they are and moved all the people. Just a thought, ha!

Regardless, General Conference 2012’s action to delete “guaranteed appointments” has made our whole system more anxious. My prediction is that the Judicial Council will rule the legislation unconstitutional because it allows each Annual Conference to be the arbiter of what the word “Ineffective” or “Effective” means. That strikes me as an abrogation of the GC’s authority “over all matters distinctively connectional… and to define the powers and duties of elders” (Par. 16, 2008 BOD). Sure, the Annual Conference is constitutionally the “fundamental” (Par. 11) and “basic” (Par. 33) body of the United Methodist Church, but the Annual Conference cannot subtract from the basic ministerial credentialing standards of the Book of Discipline: BOD Par. 304.5 and Judicial Decision 536 (www.umc.org). It seems to me that each Annual Conference’s interpretation and definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness” allows the Annual Conference to trump the powers reserved to the General Conference and lessen common standards of effectiveness.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for clergy excellence and an easier way to deal with clergy deemed unappointable, but I also remember being on the sexuality subcommittee at the 1996 General Conference where we had to define what “self-avowed practicing homosexual” meant. Committees on Investigation in Annual Conferences could not make their own interpretation or verify complaints until the GC defined the actual meaning of the phrase. We’re in a similar situation here. In a connectional church with transfers of clergy from here to yon, there needs be one definition of “Ineffectiveness” or “Effectiveness.” I wonder if that’s even possible given the subjectivity involved. As a District Superintendent I have to ponder the objectivity or subjectivity of negative letters and phone calls on a daily basis and respond accordingly. It’s no small task!

Ministry is no small task! It’s a high calling to be in ministry. We have the extraordinary blessing of being incarnational with people in their most significant life events. Of course there’s the challenge of being on call 24/7, but I have heard very few complaints from clergy who are sincerely answering God’s call. One issue, however, that I have heard about is housing. Most of our clergy still live in church-provided parsonages. The parsonage system for United Methodist clergy is intended to facilitate the movement of ministers from church to church without being encumbered by the distractions of buying, selling, or owning a house. It’s a fine system unless you have no clue where you’re going to live when you retire.

I’ve been thinking about ministry a lot lately. Only the Good Lord knows what will happen to us in the Bishop Election Process in July. Then there’s our daughter Narcie who is about to start her next appointment as a United Methodist elder in the Wesley Foundation Director position at the University of Florida in Gainesville. On top of that, Josh, our middle child, is about to receive his second appointment as an elder. He’s projected to be a new Associate Pastor at Shandon UMC. For the last 5 years he’s been the pastor of a two-point charge. He graduated from Clemson in engineering, and I was selfishly hoping his success in that field would help finance our retirement home. Now he and his family are trying to figure out where they will live because Shandon provides a housing allowance. It appears that itinerancy and a whole lot of moving may be in our personal forecast in the next several months. The operative word for all UM clergy is “may.”

Ministry is a strange life. It’s a wonderful life. After living in parsonages for 32 years, teaching United Methodist polity for a decade at Candler, and a DS for the last 6, I have found myself evaluating our way of being church. We are an Episcopal (Episkopos is Greek for “Bishop”) system of government tempered by conferences. In other words, we have Bishops that appoint ministers to their various fields of service, yet it is General Conference that authorizes Bishops for the task. Annual Conference Boards of Ordained Ministry recommend persons to be licensed, commissioned, or ordained and the Clergy Session votes approval or not, then the Bishop acts. Both have to be in concert with one another. We conference all the way up from the local Charge Conference, District Conference, Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, to global church at General Conference. Then we receive and accept the clergy appointments made by the episcopacy. At the most local level, the 11-person Staff-Parish Relations Committee, once a year, advises the Bishop as to whether or not they think it’s time for a new clergyperson to come to their church, and once a year, pastors state whether or not they want to move.

Notice this is all advisory. The church may have its desires and agenda, but it’s also only advisory. Also note that clergy don’t get to say whether or not they’re willing to move. Willingness to move was assumed for me when I was ordained elder 32 years ago. I dare say that the same is pretty much true for anyone called to be a deacon or a local pastor. It’s part and parcel of being in ministry. Therefore, we take our appointments, yours and mine, “without reserve,” as our Book of Discipline puts it (Par. 333.1). We are a “sent” system, not a “call” system. Our system offers a means by which clergy and churches are matched and ministry is enhanced. If either the clergy or the congregation has any reservations or veto power then the whole system breaks down. So a lot of faith is necessary in this enterprise, not to mention, a lot of leadership and discipleship.

It’s a mark of our discipleship, whether we’re clergy or not, to go where we’re sent for Jesus everyday. By the way, if you ever wondered why some ministers wear a stole and others don’t, it’s all about whether they have been ordained. Ordination places one under the orders of God and the Bishop to go where they’re sent, like the reins on a horse. This whole discussion begs the question, “What would our discipleship look like if we all took our orders seriously, if God held the reins of our entire lives?” Brendan Manning gets at a good answer in his book, The Signature of Jesus, “Discipleship means living one day at a time as though Jesus were near: near in time, near in place, the witness of our motives, our speech, our behavior. As indeed he is.”

My prayer is that we will do everything possible to live into God’s preferred direction today – whether as clergy or laity. This will yield fruit for the Kingdom and give evidence of our faithful discipleship. In my mind, that’s effective itinerancy and might just enhance this “apostolic plan of evangelization!”

Trinity Sunday as United Methodist Hope

General Conference 2012 was a wake-up call for United Methodists to recapture our ecclesiology based on the Trinity. Much of our muddling was because we left out the theological underpinning that we so desperately needed to be civil in holy conferencing and to do good, not harm in our actions. I think that two of John Wesley’s best contributions to theology come from his understanding of how we as human beings are reflective of the Image of God, the imago Dei. Those two emphases, simply put, are an intentional concentration on sanctification and conferencing. While other faith groups emphasize that humankind carries the Image of God in a legal way that underscores dominion and ownership of the earth, Wesley believed primarily that we are made in the Moral Image and the Social Image of God. If God does the right thing, we being made in God’s image should do the right thing. Jesus said in Matthew 5:48, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” Hence, our Wesleyan understanding that God doesn’t save us in Jesus Christ to leave us the way God found us, but to transform us for the transformation of the world.

Then Wesley really hit the jackpot in emphasizing our reflecting the Social Image of God. One of the best ways to think of the Trinity as social community is through the Greek word perichoresis. Think of two words to get at its meaning, peri is where we get the beginning of our word perimeter. It means “around.” Choresis is where we get the first part of the word “choreography,” which, of course, is about “dancing.” So the Greek or Eastern word with which Wesley felt most comfortable when thinking of the Trinity, literally means “Dancing Around.” When we see God as Parent, Child, and Spirit; Father; Son, and Holy Ghost, we see God dancing around in community, with intimacy and unity of purpose – a great model for Christian Community that provides a Wesleyan basis for holy conferencing. If God needs to dwell in community how much more so do we? So, as United Methodists, we have charge conferences, annual conferences, district conferences, annual conferences, central conferences, jurisdictional conferences, and general conference. The work of community is also found in Wesley’s class meetings and small accountability groups. The image of God is literally in our DNA and especially as it is reflected in our ecclesiology, our practice of being and doing church in the world.

The first Sunday (June 3, 2012) after Pentecost is always Trinity Sunday in celebration of God’s Three-In-One nature and action on creation’s behalf. If you’ve ever tried to explain the Trinity to a child or an adult, you know how difficult this doctrine is to comprehend. Though believing in a Three-In-One God seems more polytheistic than monotheistic, I don’t care. The more the merrier. I need all the help that I can get. I need God’s loving care as a parent, as Jesus the Savior, and through the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit. The Trinity makes sure that we as individuals plus the Godhead are always a majority against any enemy. To be clear, however, we are monotheists. We just believe God has chosen to reveal God’s self through three distinct but indivisible persons.

To be sure, the Trinity is an unfathomable mystery. Every analogy from water (liquid, solid, and gas) to St. Patrick’s shamrock falls short of explaining the unexplainable mysterium tremendum of the Trinity. However, we miss the greatness of our God unless we accept how God has presented God’s self as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Harry Emerson Fosdick illustrated the revelation of the Trinity by pointing to various portrayals of Theodore Roosevelt. His Autobiography portrays Roosevelt as a statesman, politician, president and public figure. His Winning of the West portrays Roosevelt as a sportsman, hunter, explorer and soldier. His Letters to His Children shows him as a winsome, lovable, gentle father, husband and family man. Each one of these portraits was true to whoRoosevelt was. We know enough from each one of them to know something. But even when we put them all together, we still don’t know everything there is to know about who he was.

Likewise, Frederick Buechner, in his book, Wishful Thinking: A Theological ABC says, “If the idea of God as both Three and One seems far-fetched and obfuscating, look in the mirror someday. There is (a) the interior life known only to yourself and those you choose to communicate it to (the Father). There is (b) the visible face which in some measure reflects that inner life (the Son). And there is (c) the invisible power you have in order to communicate that interior life in such a way that others do not merely know about it, but know it in the sense of its becoming part of who they are (the Holy Spirit). Yet what you are looking at in the mirror is clearly and invisibly the one and only you.”

The Trinity is an affirmation of teamwork – One in Three and Three in One. Madeleine L’Engle says, “The Trinity proclaims a unity that in this fragmented world we desperately need. We are mortals who are male and female, and we need to know each other, love each other. The world gets daily more perilous. Our cities spawn crime. Terrorists are around every corner. Random acts of violence increase. Less understandable and less advertised is the sad fact that Christians are suspicious of other Christians. Don’t we have all the central things – God, making; Christ, awaking; the Holy Spirit, blessing – in common?”

The Trinity, therefore, models the unity that we should share. As United Methodists I hope that we will embrace our Wesleyan and Judeo-Christian heritage as bearers of the Image of God. If we can reflect God in doing good, not harm, and remember that we need each other in Christian community then we have a hopeful future. However pained many are in the aftermath of General Conference 2012 there is a way forward. Trinity Sunday is a superb reminder if we will ponder it!

Lent, Call to Action, and the Truth

I just got back from a Connectional Table meeting and felt like I was subjected to subtle and not-so-subtle encouragement to support the IOT/CT legislation carte blanche. Well I have hardly ever been accused of checking my brain at the door. I did get up and profess that I would rather be a part of the coalition of the willing than a resister but feel the responsibility to ask pertinent questions about the IOT/CT plan that must be answered. I still have those questions about putting so much power and assets in the hands of a 15-member Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry and a 45-member group that meets once a year. The questions are huge. I feel compelled to keep asking questions and pray for truth. I know that everybody in this debate has their own perspective, but I hope we will all ponder the common issues of UM indentity, theology, and inclusivity. All of us have to avoid spin which to me is negative and often just half-truths. I read the Wisconsin Annual Conference’s statement on the Call to Action and really resonate with it. Here’s the link to some good truth-telling and questions:

http://www.umc.org/atf/cf/%7Bdb6a45e4-c446-4248-82c8-e131b6424741%7D/WISCONSIN%20DELEGATION%20STATEMENT.PDF?tr=y&auid=10420414

Speaking of truth, the great novelist Flannery O’Connor, known for surprise endings and plot twists that can turn a reader upside down, wrote these matter-of-fact words, “You shall know and do the truth . . . and the truth will make you odd.”  It may cause us to feel odd in today’s world when we live truthfully. I know that I don’t have a corner on the truth market. I also know how odd I can be, but I’m trying to be ethical. Ethics as defined by the dictionary is “the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation.” I’m glad the definition started with the word, “discipline.”  Doing the right thing, believing the truth and living truthfully, takes extraordinary discipline.

For example, 20,000 middle-and high-schoolers were surveyed by the Josephson Institute of Ethics–a non-profit organization in Marina del Rey, California, devoted to character education.  Ninety-two percent of the teenagers admitted having lied to their parents in the previous year, and 73 percent characterized themselves as “serial liars,” meaning they told lies weekly.  Despite these admissions, 91 percent of all respondents said they were “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” That’s a scary thing–when we knowingly misrepresent the truth and we are “satisfied with my own ethics and character.” Living truthfully may make you odd in today’s world.

Lenten season dares us to “fess up” to our shortcomings and that takes truth telling. Most of us would rather talk about what’s wrong with everybody else but ourselves. We have the Cleopatra Syndrome, so called because she was the Queen of DENIAL. Jesus came to expose the denying lies of those who felt smug in their self-righteousness and to bring relief to those who felt imprisoned by their unrighteousness. He told it like it was about both groups. He wanted both groups to come clean, tell the truth and experience the freedom that can only come from having no secrets from God.

With the woman at the well Jesus dodged her non-answers and went straight to the jugular about her many marriages and live-in lover. It was her honesty that finally opened her eyes to both Jesus and her own salvation. But she had to tell the truth to get there! Honesty is the best policy, especially honesty with God! He already knows what we’re thinking anyway, so why don’t we turn those ugly worrisome thoughts into prayers?

Only God is omnipotent, omnipresent, and omniscient, but out of love God gives us tremendous freedom and latitude. We can choose or not choose to turn to God in repentance and ask for help in our daily predicaments. If we don’t turn to God aren’t we neglecting the best opportunity for real help when the going gets rough? Next time you find yourself in a situation and are already planning your exit strategy with not-so-truthful ease, turn to God instead. Jesus is more than ready and able to help you. All Jesus asks is for us to be honest. Without honesty, we’re stuck in a downward spiral toward disaster. I pray that as we prepare for GC 2012 we will speak the truth in love!

United Methodist Pope and Problems of Consolidation

There has been much fanfare about the restructuring plan for the UMC that will be presented to the 2012 General Conference. I just had a conversation with someone who recently came back from a meeting with a general agency of the church where the plan was explained. We had a wonderful conversation about the history of the UMC and our polity as it relates to the proposed legislation.

I have to admit that I am personally involved in this process as both a member of the Connectional Table that approved the proposed new structure and as a member of the Legislative Writing Team that has composed it. Although I disagree with key sections I have been faithful in my responsibility to write good legislation with the hope that holy conferencing and the wisdom of General Conference 2012 will correct the troublesome parts.

A primary concern for me is that we are allowing a business model to dictate ecclesiology. I know we’re in terrible economic times but that doesn’t give us license to overturn our polity for the sake of saving money. Actually I think the money-saving is a smoke-screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops. Our polity is based on the separation of powers. Our two constitutional powers in the UMC are episcopacy and conferences. They must be held in perpetual tension and balance. Judicial Decisions as well as the 2008 Book of Discipline are clear in this matter. For instance, Judicial Decisions 689 and 1156 are important citations. There are more!

The Constitution clearly states that “The Annual Conference is the basic body in the Church and shall have reserved to it the right to vote… on all matters relating to the character and conference relations of its ministerial members.” (Par. 36) The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. While the boundaries can become hazy in any particular situation, the preservation of the separation of powers must be observed.  (Judicial Decision 689, rendered in 1993)

The separation of authority and decision making is integral to the United Methodist Constitution and law. (Judicial Decision 1156, rendered in 2010)

In addition, Par. 140 of the 2008 Book of Discipline states, “Under the constitution and disciplinary procedures set forth in this Book of Discipline, “The United Methodist Church” as a denominational whole is not an entity, nor does it possess legal capacities and attributes. It does not and cannot hold title to property, nor does it have any officer, agent, employee, office or location.” Par. 2509 of the same BOD says that we are a non-jural entity, that we cannot be sued as a denominational whole because we do not exist as a denomination! Rather, our polity has affirmed since our very existence that we are a movement, a group of separately incorporated mission outposts for the Kingdom of God!

Unfortunately, the IOT/CT proposals for restructuring will set up a 15-member CENTER for Connectional Mission and Ministry and have a set-aside Bishop as one of its members and perhaps its chair. This certainly overturns Par. 140 of the BOD by creating both an office/location and an officer! Another frightening thought is that this CENTER’s only oversight will come from a 45-member group (The General Council for Oversight and Strategy) that will meet just once a year. Its chair will be the same set-aside bishop who will either lead or be a member of the CENTER for Connectional Ministry and Mission. For legal and fiduciary protection this is a wrong-headed idea. Legal counsel has already observed that having a denominational CENTER and OFFICER leaves the denomination open for wholesale litigation possibilities. This is a streamlined business model to be sure and saves a ton of money by reducing the costs of separate boards and agencies having to send 565 people to meetings but the cost to our historic polity, balance of powers, and core value of diversity will be greater than any savings.

A 15-member CENTER can hardly be inclusive of all the voices of the UMC. If the purpose of the legislation is to make the denomination more nimble and connect it more closely with annual conferences and local churches then this widens the chasm in my opinion. Voices will not be at the table and will not be heard! Having a quasi-pope from the Council of Bishops may make business sense, but it violates our historic separation of powers. We are a spiritual movement that needs bishops who will be leaders but not with one set-aside bishop. We need ALL the bishops to be set-aside IN THEIR ANNUAL CONFERENCES! We all know how little time bishops actually spend time in their annual conferences. Where are the teaching days? Where is the personal contact and interaction across annual conferences and in local churches? If we want local churches to be mission outposts then bishops must see their primary duty as being in their episcopal areas. How about a promise not to spend more than 21 days outside the annual conference? How about a promise to spend teaching days with laity and clergy in every district at least twice a year? How about a promise to spend time in each district staying in homes getting to know people and scheduling time with every clergyperson in each district over a quadrennium or maybe even twice every four years? How about a promise to be in each charge over a quadrennium? All these things and more come to my mind as a way for United Methodism to regain some of its relevance. It will be possible through personal connections! Personal connections make United Methodist Connectionalism work!

The proposal coming to GC 2012 is out of touch with 21st century flat-world thinking, and bishops and leadership have to be in touch to be relevant! There are cost-savings with the proposal but more centralization into smaller less diverse entities does not offer the hope for change that I’m looking for. It changes us from a spiritual movement into a more bureaucratic quagmire than we already are. I say free  up our bishops to lead on the local level. Don’t vote for a constitutional change that would allow one of them to be set-aside for quasi-pope duty. Don’t vote to abrogate the power of General Conference to set budgets and let the Council of Bishops be able to do it between sessions of the GC. Would you want your pastor to have the authority to change your local church’s budget? Heaven’s “NO!” Our connectionalism works best when the distance between leadership and people is bridged not widened. Connectionalism works best and is more theologically sound when it is horizontal not top down. We have tried top-down and it doesn’t work. I know that I can’t say everything that I need to say in this space, but I wanted to put some food for thought on the table as people are gearing up for next year. May God be with us as we discern together!